Father's deadly rage ignited by breakup
After a heated argument with her husband, Angela Harrison, 35, sped away from their Graham-area home last week in a black Mustang. She had been gone...
Seattle Times staff reporters
GRAHAM, Pierce County — After a heated argument with her husband, Angela Harrison, 35, sped away from their Graham-area home last week in a black Mustang. She had been gone for days when James Harrison decided Friday night that it was time to pursue his wife.
He jumped in a car with oldest daughter Maxine, 16, who tracked her mother through a cellphone global-positioning system.
They homed in on a convenience store 20 miles away in Auburn, north of the Muckleshoot Casino. James confronted his wife, who was with another man. He wanted her home. She said she wasn't coming back.
He stormed home, consulted relatives and calmed down. Maxine went to bed about 11 p.m. with her four younger siblings. She sent a classmate a text message from her cellphone: "I'm tired of crying. I'm going to bed."
Within hours, James Harrison, 34, grabbed a rifle and shot each child multiple times. Four were found in bed. One of the girls died in the bathroom after a violent struggle.
Armed with a second rifle, he returned to Auburn on Saturday morning, perhaps in hopes of finding his wife. Perhaps to kill again. Instead, sitting inside his running SUV, he turned the rifle on himself. His body was discovered about 8 a.m. by children playing in the area.
The father's final hours and the circumstances behind the slayings of his five children are based on interviews with officials from the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, the state Department of Social and Health Services and dozens of relatives, neighbors and friends.
Authorities continue to unravel the layers of a troubled marriage between a former store clerk and a casino security guard, whose home was littered with toys on the outside but inside, through the reed-thin walls of a 1,152-square-foot double-wide trailer, neighbors said they could not help but overhear furious arguments.
Sheriff's deputies have not officially released the names of the family, although relatives identified the couple and their children, Maxine, 16, a 10th-grader at Orting High School; Jamie, 14, in eighth grade; Samantha, 12, in seventh grade; and Heather, 8, and James, 7, both in the second grade.
The children were killed at close range, which may explain why neighbors did not hear shots, said Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer.
"The theory is he went back to find her," Troyer said of James Harrison, who killed himself near the convenience store where he had confronted his wife the previous night. "I think he realized the gravity of what he did and shot himself."
Troyer said James Harrison, "distressed at losing his wife to another man," possibly would have shot and killed his wife and her companion had he found them.
"If you can kill your kids, I guess Mom and her boyfriend wouldn't be out of the realm," Troyer said.
The mother found out about the deaths at the same time police did, Troyer said. "She's obviously in shock," he said.
Tina Neidigh, 32, and her husband Eric McCoy, 37, were the last people to see the children alive Friday night, The Tacoma News Tribune reported this morning. The couple had known the Harrisons for nine years and their four children played with the Harrison kids.
Neidigh said Harrison had called them about 6 p.m. Friday and told them about the confrontation with his wife, The News Tribune reported. He said he was very upset and asked them to come over.
"We sat down and talked to the girls," McCoy told The News Tribune. "We told them their mom loves them and sometimes adult do stupid things."
By the time they left at 10:30 p.m., they said the kids were laughing and Harrison even cracked a smile or two. Harrison had tucked three of the children into bed.
"On the way out the door, I told him to be good, take care of the kids and don't worry about anything else," McCoy told The News Tribune.
Angela Harrison's cousin, Tim Martin, said he never saw signs of neglect or abuse with the children.
"They weren't a messed-up family that had a messed-up dad," said Martin, 21, of Parkland. "That's what puzzles the family. How he could do this horrific thing? They were his kids, too."
State officials say there were five complaints alleging abuse or neglect involving the family between 2001 and 2007.
In the most recent incident, investigators determined that James Harrison physically abused one of his children in February 2007, according to Sherry Hill, spokeswoman for the Children's Administration at the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
Family members said Harrison, who worked at the Emerald Queen Casino near Tacoma, became enraged about an incident in school and slapped one of the children. He successfully completed parenting classes, they said.
Nancy Sutton, the Children's Administration regional administrator for the Pierce County area, said one more complaint, alleging neglect, was "founded." A third was deemed "unfounded." Two other complaints did not rise to the level of abuse or neglect but indicated the family needed some help, so they were referred to community providers.
Sutton would not say what those complaints were, but she said complaints in this category are low-level. One example, she said, would be head lice.
Hill added that DSHS officials will review records this week and work with law-enforcement officials to determine whether there were other warning signs.
Ryan Peden, Maxine's classmate, said Maxine told him Friday night that her parents had gotten into a fight and that her mother had left. Maxine said the father followed the mother and tried to get her to return, Peden said.
He received Maxine's final text message at 11 p.m. His text to her the next day went unanswered.
At the Indian Country Store in Puyallup, a part-owner confirmed this morning that Angela Harrison had worked at the store part-time for the past two years in sales and inventory.
The part-owner, who did not want to be identified, could not confirm reports that the man with whom Angela Harrison was involved with also worked at the store.
Neighbors at the Deer Run mobile-home park, a swath of large lots and mature trees, said the Harrison family was private, but there were signs that the children lived in fear of their father's wrath.
Carolyn Bader, a former neighbor, said her 11-year-old son played with James.
"My son would invite him into the yard, and James would say, 'I can't — I don't want to get in trouble,' " said Bader, 32.
One afternoon, James left a toy outside the Baders' house. Her son, afraid James might get in trouble, went to return it.
"He got three steps in their driveway and could hear the dad yelling," Bader said. Her son came home and got his father and father's friend to go with him back across the street, "all because he was afraid his friend would get in trouble over a toy — a toy," she said.
Kelly Vorak, who lives across the street, said the Harrisons' youngest daughter, Heather, asked another neighbor, "a grandmotherly type," to look after her cat, an orange tabby named Taz.
"The neighbor was taking care of the cat because one of the girls was afraid her dad was going to kill it," Vorak said.
Family members Sunday night said Angela Harrison was too distraught to discuss the tragedy. She met her husband and became pregnant as a teenager. However, they did not marry until 2000, state records show. No funeral arrangements have been announced.
At the home, icicle-style white Christmas lights still line the gutters. A portable basketball hoop with a rotted net stands in the front yard, next to a growing memorial of flowers, cards, stuffed animals and five yellow ribbons twisted into crosses. A trampoline and a children's swing set take up much of the backyard, where four bicycles were leaned against the chain-link fence.
At the front door, neighbors left bouquets of daffodils and silk flowers. Someone left tuna on the stoop, presumably for the orange cat that was seen crawling out of a hole in the roof.
Berens and Thompson and Nicole Tsong reported from Seattle.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or email@example.com
Information in this article, originally published April 6, 2009, was corrected the same day.A previous version of this story stated that there was one prior investigation of an abuse or neglect complaint involving this family. The Seattle Times later found there were five prior complaints.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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